This timeline presents the landmark events of the First World War in Brussels and around the world.
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The Balkans had been a powder keg since the Russo-Turkish War of 1875–1876. The geopolitical interests of the Austro-Hungarian Empire stood in conflict with the Pan-Slavic nationalism of Tsarist Russia and Serbia, and were based on the increasingly apparent weakness of the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, a coup d’Etat placed Pierre Karageorgevitch, a pro-Russian prince, on the throne of Serbia. Five years later, the sandjaks (administrative divisions) of Bosnia and Herzegovina, initially governed by the Austrians in the name of the Ottoman Empire, were annexed by Austria-Hungary, much to the anger of the Serbians and of Tsarist Russia. Austria chose the date for the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife's inspection visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia with care. The 28 June is an important date in the Serbian Orthodox calendar: not only is it Vidovdan, or St Vitus day, but it also commemorates the Serbian defeat by the Turks in 1389 and was also the royal couple's 14th wedding anniversary. The Austrians confidently paid no heed to the warnings of the Serbian ambassador in Vienna, nor did the Archduke listen to his friends and family, who advised him not to go to Sarajevo. The royal couple arrived in the Bosnian capital without a military escort. After a heated visit to the town hall, Franz Ferdinand wanted to visit those injured in an assassination attempt that had taken place in the city that morning. But the chauffeur got lost and, at Latin Bridge, the Serbian nationalist GAprilo Princip, a member of the Young Bosnia movement, fired twice at the royal car, hitting the Archduke and his wife, who died a quarter of an hour later. The Serbians celebrated the event, along with those at the Austrian Court who did not approve of the Slavic leanings of the heir to the throne.
Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia
The assassination in Sarajevo was a political and international pretext to further fan the nationalist and imperialist tensions that had been very present throughout Europe since the last quarter of the 19th century, coupled with an arms race. Immediately following the assassination, on 7 July 1914, Austria issued the Serbs with an ultimatum. At the same time, Austria guaranteed its alliance with Germany in the event of war. Supported by Russia, Serbia rejected the ultimatum and Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. This had a domino effect, with Russia, Serbia's Slavic ally, mobilising and France, an ally of Russia, doing likewise. Allied with Austria-Hungary, Germany followed suit. On 29 July, the Belgian army was placed on an armed peace footing to ensure the country's neutrality. On 4 August 1914, war broke out in all its horror. Given the alliances at play, the conflict rapidly became a world war.
Speech by Jean Jaurès at the Cirque Royal in Brussels
Seeking a pacifist approach, the International Socialist Bureau continued to appeal for peace. At the behest of Emile Vandervelde, President of the Second International, the French politician and socialist Jean Jaurès was invited to the Cirque Royal in Brussels for an anti-war meeting, where he gave a speech: Si l’on pouvait lire dans le cœur des gouvernants, on pourrait y voir si vraiment ils sont contents de ce qu’ils ont fait. Ils voudraient être grands: ils mènent les peuples au bord de l’abîme: Mays au dernier moment, ils hésitent; le cheval d’Attila effarouche encore Mays il trébuche. Cette hésitation des dirigeants, il faut que nous la mettions à profit pour organiser la paix. (If one could read the hearts of leaders, one could truly see if they were happy with what they have done. They would like to be great: they bring the people to the edge of the abyss: but at the last minute, they hesitate; Attila's horse terrifies, but it stumbles. We must make the most of their hesitation to organise peace.) The following day, Jaurès was assassinated at the Café du Croissant in Paris by Raoul Villain, a vengeful nationalist student.
Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality
Belgium's neutrality was recognised in international law, particularly by Germany, as the Kaiser himself had promised to uphold it. But on 2 August 1914, banking on Queen Elisabeth's ties with Germany, he gave Belgium an ultimatum to allow his troops to pass through Belgium to invade France, Russia's ally. The ultimatum was rejected by the government and King Albert I gave his famous patriotic speech to parliament: Un pays qui se défend s'impose au respect de tous, ce pays ne périt pas. J'ai foi en nos destinées. (A country that defends itself, commands the respect of all; such a country does not perish! I have faith in our destiny.) War broke out and German troops invaded the country. After fighting in the Walloon provinces, involving both French and Belgian soldiers, the invading army arrived at the gates of Brussels on 19 August.
Germany enters Brussels
The German army entered Brussels in a quiet atmosphere of resignation. Horrified by the violence of the fighting in the towns of Wallonia, as in Dinant for example, the Burgomaster of Brussels, Adolphe Max, appealed to his fellow citizens not to take up arms against the invading force. Wishing Belgium free and independent, he declared a peaceful resistance and asked for the trust of his people, which he would never betray: Aussi longtemps que je serai en vie et en liberté, je protégerai de toutes mes forces les droits et la dignité de mes concitoyens. (As long as I am alive and free, I will protect the rights and dignity of my fellow citizens with every fibre of my being.)
Russia's defeat at Tannenberg
The Battle of Tannenberg played out on territory laden with nationalist history, as it was here that in the Middle Ages the realm of Poland-Lithuania successfully opposed the knights of the Teutonic Order. This time, in 1914, the Russians were crushed by the victorious German forces, who took tens of thousands of prisoners and seized a significant amount of military material, particularly canons and horses. On the Eastern Front, the war also promised to be drawn out.
Battle of the Marne
The Battle of the Marne ended with a German retreat and a French victory, preventing the invasion of Paris and ending the race for the sea. Led by French Marchhal Joffre, the battle benefited from reinforcements sent on the order of the military governor of Paris and transported in requisitioned Parisian taxi cabs, which became known as the 'taxis de la Marne'.
Arrest of Adolphe Max
The Burgomaster of the city of Brussels, Adolphe Max, had striven from the start of the war to practise a policy of peaceful resistance in order to avoid retaliations by the occupying force. On 16 September, he appealed to the people of Brussels to resign themselves to the German ban on displaying the national colours, deemed injurious to the enemy troops, and to make this additional “sacrifice” while patiently awaiting “the hour of reparation”. During the first weeks of the war, Max devoted himself to supporting his fellow citizens, particularly in organising relief for refugees and for the families of soldiers at the Front. He oversaw the city's food supply and tried to prevent any surplus. But on 26 September, in response to Germany's suspension of requisition vouchers, Max refused to continue to pay the reMaynder of the war contribution owed by the city. Already irritated by his unyielding stance toward them, the Germans arrested the burgomaster on grounds of insubordination. Imprisoned in Germany, Adolphe Max became the icon of the Resistance and received thousands of letters of support from his people. La colère que je ressens de n’être pas en ce moment à mon poste, laissera en moi des traces qui ne s’effaceront jaMays. Mays je ne suis ni découragé ni démoralisé. Moins que jaMays, je doute de l’avenir. Ma confiance et mon espoir grandissent chaque jour (The anger I feel at not being at my post at this very moment will leave a mark on me forever. But I am not discouraged or demoralised. I am less uncertain about the future than ever before. My confidence and hope become stronger by the day), he wrote to Mrs P. Vandervelde on 12 December 1914. Freed at the end of the war, he returned to Brussels a hero on 17 November 1918.
Introduction of the Reichsmark in Belgium
After having attempted, in August 1914, to get hold of the state's wealth at the National Bank, the banknotes and gold reserves of which had already been transferred to London, Germany suspended its privilege of issue and appointed the bank Société générale as the new issuer. It set taxes and war fines in its currency, for which it advantageously stopped the exchange. It also introduced the Reichsmark as legal tender in Belgium, further impacting national sovereignty.
Fall of Antwerp
As soon as Brussels was occupied at the end of August, and in order to spare Belgium's military forces, King Albert decided to withdraw his army to Antwerp, which was protected by a series of fortresses. This entrenchment greatly annoyed the Germans, who decided, at the beginning of September, to end it. Mayntaining Antwerp was obviously important for Belgium and the Allies due to its strategic port location. In the face of the onslaught, the king had no option but to retreat and Antwerp's town square capitulated on 10 October. The Belgian army withdrew behind the Yser where a new battle awaited them a few days later.
Battle of the Yser and of Ypres
Behind the Yser, where it had entrenched after Antwerp's fall, the outnumbered Belgian army obstinately defended its positions. On 24 October, it received the reinforcement of a French brigade. The following day it decided to flood the Nieuwpoort plain at Diksmuide by opening the sluices. The rising water level forced the Germans to retreat and dig in. The Yser became the front line and the new ‘border’ between what was left of free Belgium and the rest of the occupied country. Manoeuvre warfare gave way to trench warfare from the North Sea to Switzerland, and so began the hell of the “Tunnels of Death” described by many soldiers like the French marine, Chief Petty Officer Déniel, killed on 16 December: We are living like savages. Traumatised by the extent of the loss of human life, German and British soldiers improvised a Christmas truce on 25 December 1914, singing songs and exchanging small gifts.
Creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium
The invasion wreaked havoc on the country's economy: trade was stopped, factories closed, workers were forced out of work, and government payments were suspended. Poverty was the Mayn direct consequence of the occupation. Added to the fear of exactions by the invading power was the anguish of not having enough food to eat. On 19 October 1914, Emile Francqui, a Belgian financier, and Herbert Hoover, an American engineer and future politician, who knew each other from major construction projects in China, met in London and founded the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), aimed at providing the country with food supplies. They obtained diplomatic protection from Spain and the United States for the purchase and transfer of supplies to Belgium. At sea, Britain gave the CRB's boats safe passage around the naval blockade. In Belgium, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA; National emergency and food committee) ensured the fair distribution of the supplies. Created initially in Brussels for the people of Brussels shortly after the German invasion, the CNSA rapidly extended its work across all of Belgium’s towns and regions. Anything to do with transporting food was carried out under the form of financial transactions, while the emergency departments were financed by profits from the food and by donations from Belgium and abroad. Ernest Solvay became President of the CNSA by providing it with a significant subsidy for its operating costs.
Declaration of war by France and Britain on the Ottoman Empire
Despite its reputation as the ‘sick man’ of Europe, the Ottoman Empire entered the war alongside the Triple Alliance (the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Italy, which changed sides in 1915). From that moment on, it opposed the countries of the Triple Entente (France, Russia and Britain), which were joined by Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro, and Japan, which declared war on Germany on 23 August as an ally of Britain.
In an effort to standardise the administration of its new territories as much as possible, Germany imposed Central European Time (Greenwich Mean Time +1), which has reMayned in use to this day. Daylight saving time was also introduced by Germany in 1916 (Greenwich Mean Time +2).
Appointment of Governor General von Bissing
General of the Cavalry Moritz von Bissing was appointed the new governor general in Belgium to replace Colmar von der Golz, appointed by the Kaiser to conduct military operations in Turkey. Von Bissing arrived in Belgium as the German army was encountering difficulties on the Yser front. He set about launching mass poster information and propaganda campaigns among the occupied civilians. He attacked the Resistance, condemning Edith Cavell to death, and advocated the administrative division of Belgium by separating Flanders from the Walloon region.
“Patriotism and Endurance” Pastoral by Cardinal Mercier
Throughout the war's duration, Cardinal Mercier endeavoured to encourage and support faithful Catholics with pastorals to be read at Sunday mass. Returning from the conclave that had just elected Pope Benedict XV, the Belgian primate was deeply shocked by the situation in his country. His written text for Christmas 1914, ‘Patriotism and Endurance’, was a theological and moral reflection on resistance: Ce pouvoir n’est pas une autorité légitime. Et, dès lors dans l’intimité de votre âme, vous ne lui devez ni estime, ni attachement, ni obeisance. (This power is not a legitimate authority; and hence in the intimacy of your soul you owe it neither respect, obedience nor love.)
Terror bombing campaign by German Zeppelins in Britain
Allied offensive in the Dardanelles and Bulgaria's entry into the war alongside the Central Powers (September)
Creation of the Belgian national institution for war orphans, the Oeuvre Nationale des Orphelins de Guerre
First use of poison gas in Ypres
Start of the Armenian genocide
Torpedoing of the Lusitania and death of Dr Depage's wife
Italy's declaration of war against Austria-Hungary
Patriotic celebration by Brussels' restaurant and cafe owners
Zimmerwald international socialist conference
Second offensives in Champagne and Artois
Bulgaria joins the war alongside the Central Powers
Execution of Edith Cavell
Joffre's appointment as generalissimo by the Allies
Start of the Battle of Verdun
Germany declares war on Portugal
Execution of Gabrielle Petit
Naval Battle of Jutland
Offensive by Russian General Broussilov
Start of the Battle of the Somme
One million DM fine for the city of Brussels
Treaty of Alliance between Romania and the Entente (Allies)
First use of tanks by the British
Belgian victory in Tabora against Germany's East African troops
Greece declares war on Bulgaria and Germany
Food crisis in Belgium worsens
Germany steps up submarine warfare
February Russian Revolution (Kerenski)
Administrative separation of Flanders and Wallonia
America joins the war
Appointment of Governor General von Falkenhausen
Arrest of Alderman Maurice Lemonnier, Deputy Burgomaster of the city of Brussels
Start of mutinies in the French army
Arab victory in Aqaba (Lawrence of Arabia)
Bolshevik Revolution in Russia
Austrian offensive in Italy
Canadian victory in Passchendaele
Separate peace between Germany and the Ukraine
Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty
Second German offensive in Flanders
Bucharest Peace Treaty
Paris shelled by “Big Bertha”
Start of the Allied counter-offensive
Spanish influenza epidemic
Abdication of the Kaiser and proclamation of the republic
Loppem armistice agreement
Proclamation of the liberation of Brussels and the grand return of Adolphe Max
King Albert enters Brussels
National funerals for fifteen heroes
Treaty of Versailles
Creation of the Belgium national institution for child welfare, the Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance
First legislative elections through universal suffrage for men
Burial of the Unknown Soldier in Brussels